NEW YORK — It’s not just those sexy fishnets and knee-highs featured in the hit movie "Chicago" that puts a hopeful smile on legwear makers these days.

During last week’s intermediate market, vendors said that they expect fashion socks, bright colors and a slew of new lines to lift sales this year.

"Fashion is mainly driving the sock business," said John Flynn, vice president of sales at Levante USA. "Brights are very important. After seasons of dark tones, brights will hopefully help sales this spring."

But vendors know they have work to do, as the category is more challenging and competitive than ever with several new players, a price-conscious consumer turning increasingly to discount retail chains, and tight real estate at department stores.

Typically, the January market offers retailers and vendors a chance to discuss the past fall season, sort out markdown-related issues and preview trends for next fall.

"Fall started out quite slow at retail, but most sold in quite well," said Mark Hierbaum, chief executive officer at DML Marketing Group, which manufactures Legale legwear. "Heading into next fall, I think the worst of the department shrinkage is over."

Many agreed that the nature of the sock business is rapidly changing, as more consumers buy their legwear at discount retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart. Some even suggested that because of several department stores’ aggressive markdown strategy — with vendors expected to pick up the tab — business with discounters is increasingly a more profitable option.

Among the trends on tap this market were athletic-inspired socks with Lurex stripes, quirky animal motifs, handmade embroidery, "no-show" styles with printed tips, and a continuation of knee-highs, including open-work mesh styles.

"Next fall, knee socks will be important because of all the interest in boots," said Susan Reese, vice president of sales at Soxland.

E&E Hosiery previewed the licensed Hot Kiss sock collection that will officially launch at the WWDMAGIC show next month. The 65 styles include socks with space-dyed, animal, floral and houndstooth prints, rhinestone-adorned socks with smiley, star and lip motifs, and argyle socks with feathered tips.Elie Levy, president at E&E, which also manufactures the junior sock line Planet Sox, said: "Hot Kiss has a great brand following. It’s a good complement to our business since we understand the junior market."

Hot Kiss legwear wholesales from $1.65 to $4, and first-year sales projections are about $3 million. The line targets distribution to better department and specialty stores, with delivery by June.

Also boosting its legwear staple is Gina Hosiery, which this market presented its licensed Ocean Pacific collection featuring 25 athletic-inspired sock styles. The socks wholesale for $5 a pair and distribution is aimed at department stores. Raymond Dayan, vice president of sales and marketing, said first-year projections are $2.5 million to $3 million.

Of the current retail climate, Dayan said: "The bad season at retail will cut back buying dollars in all categories. For spring, they will be more conservative in their buys and keep the inventory lean and chase goods, which puts pressure on the manufacturer to deliver fast and keep more inventory. We can ship goods in 45 to 60 days."

During market, Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship unveiled new window displays dedicated to "Chicago." Co-sponsored by Hue legwear and Lycra, these feature mannequins in sexy thigh-highs and Lurex fishnets.

"Sponsoring the movie ‘Chicago’ was a great opportunity for Lycra to promote legwear as fashion," said Bill Amadio, North America legwear business manager at Dupont Textiles & Interiors.

Jody Eskenazi, marketing director at Hue, added: "‘Chicago’ is all about dancing and there is a huge focus on the leg, with fishnets, thigh-highs and garter belts. When consumers go to the movies and see stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger looking so gorgeous in fishnets, they will want that look, too."

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